soft skills for the 21st century workplace: empowered teamwork or emotional labor?

In the New Republic, Timothy Noah describes how the restaurant chain Pret a Manger forces its workers to be cheerful:

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.

Noah cites Arlie Hochschild’s notion of “emotional labor.” Whereas factory owners merely purchase their workers’ labor, managers of nursing homes, boutiques, and even fast-food franchises now buy their employees’ moods and attitudes. This is a creepy idea, easily bringing to mind the Stasi. In fact, the East German secret police probably tolerated a certain amount of grouchiness that would get you fired at Pret a Manger.

Meanwhile, we read that 21st century employers need more advanced and challenging interpersonal skills than factory-owners once required. Today’s employees work in diverse groups to analyze problems and invent original solutions. They are no longer assigned to durable and hierarchical teams, but navigate and build shifting networks. This may be stressful, but it is also empowering and challenging. During work-hours, the traditional firm was a dictatorship, but the post-industrial workplace is more democratic–even a “directly deliberative polyarchy” in the words of Michael C. Dorf and Charles F. Sabel.

Which is the more pervasive trend? There is evidence that “soft skills,” “interpersonal skills,” or “people skills” are worth more now, and hard skills are worth less. The boss can teach you the latest hardware and software on the job, but good employees must be able to work together. Thus Borghans et al. (2006) find that the labor-market value of “people skills” has increased rapidly in Britain, Germany and the US since 1970. Their measures of “people skills” include, for example, a preference for work that requires contact with people and a “preference for working for the presumed good of people.”

The tricky part is that these “people skills” include capabilities that are part of a good and rewarding life (such as deliberating about goals, or genuinely caring for other people) as well as creepy invasions of private life (such as always smiling at clients and coworkers).

If employers want the former, then work skills converge with democratic or civic skills. Education can become empowering and experiential; we can teach children to be ethical problem-solvers in all aspects of their lives. But if employers want workers to perform Hoschschild’s “emotional labor” (cheering up their clients or patients by always displaying a sunny attitude), then work skills sharply diverge from civic skills. Then education becomes a matter of disciplining kids to be “positive,” and the boss can grab a bigger part of your soul.

By the way, it’s not so easy to tell when it’s bad for workers to display positive attitudes. Noah writes, “Emotional labor is not itself new. Prostitutes have faked orgasms for millennia. With greater sincerity (one hopes), undertakers calm the grieving, nurses comfort the sick, and migrant nannies lavish on other people’s children the love they aren’t present to furnish back home.” He argues that what is different about Pret a Manger is the absence of valid emotional needs in a fast-food restaurant. “The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have ‘presence’ and ‘create a sense of fun?”

I don’t think that’s how to draw the distinction between acceptable and creepy forms of “emotional labor.” People seem to want smiles along with their sandwiches. Why is that desire illegitimate when it’s fine to prefer a sympathetic undertaker? We used to prefer the jolly grocer or miller to the grouchy one, and for similar reasons, we may like to shop at Pret more than McDonalds because of the smiles. In my view, the important question is the underlying power dynamic. If you own your own funeral home and you adopt a posture of sympathy toward your grieving clients, that’s both commendable behavior and good for business. If you’re a famous actor and you feign joy or love, that deserves applause. But if you work for a hospital, a nanny service, a pimp, or an upscale sandwich chain and you have to act cheerful to keep your job, that represents a loss of freedom.

I’ll end with the implications for education, although education is certainly not the only tool we can use to address the problems of 21st century work. Schools should not just teach people to be good employees; instead, they should develop those interpersonal skills that are both intrinsically worthy and valuable in the marketplace. Let employers figure out what to do if their workers have “bad attitudes.” The job of schools is to make people free, although in ways that are compatible with their earning a living. In other words, there is an overlap between what 21st century employers want and what good educators should teach, but their objectives are not identical.

See: Borghans, L., ter Weel, B., & Weinberg, B. A. “People people: Social capital and the labor-market outcomes of underrepresented groups (2006); Dorf, M.C. and Sabel, C.F. “A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism,” Columbia Law Review, vol. 98, no. 2 (March 1998);  Hochschild, A.R., The Managed heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, 20th anniversary edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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